Sherman’s March, March 3, 1865: “We skirmished heavily, and drove them rapidly through Cheraw”

In the afternoon of March 3, 1865, Major-General William T. Sherman wrote to Major-General Oliver O. Howard, commanding the Right Wing, expressing both intent and concerns with the march. After relating the status of the Left Wing, Sherman urged Howard on to Cheraw and to effect a crossing of the PeeDee River.  After that, Sherman would bring the Left Wing across.

Of course I am a little impatient to get across Pedee before Beauregard can swing around from Charlotte and Salidbury and oppose our crossing.  Once across the Pedee, I don’t fear the whole Confederate army, for if need be we can swing in against the right bank of Cape Fear and work down till we meet our people, but I shall aim to reach Fayetteville and Goldsborough, where I know Schofield must now be.

Of course, Major-General John Schofield’s forces were not yet to those points.  Nor would Schofield reach Goldsborough before the middle of March.  Still we have an interesting view of Sherman’s intent at this stage of the march.  The Carolinas Campaign was not the “cake walk” which is often portrayed.  There was still a risk that a concentrated Confederate force might injure Sherman’s force and perhaps even roll back some of the gains made.

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At the time Sherman wrote his message to Howard, the Federals already had possession of Cheraw. This was but one important movement by several columns that day as the armies “closed up” from a week of difficult marches.  To the far left of the line, Major-General H. Judson Kilpatick’s cavalry moved to maintain a screen between the Confederates and the Fourteenth Corps.  The troopers skirmished at several points and crossed some columns over the state line into North Carolina. “My scouts have felt the enemy all day on the left,” reported Kilpatrick.    Sherman responded, “I want you to interpose between Charlotte and Cheraw til we are across” the PeeDee.

The infantry of the Fourteenth Corps made over twenty miles on the 3rd, clearing Lynches River and Black Creek. The column was understandably stretched out at day’s end, and somewhat vulnerable. But to the credit of the cavalry screen, only some annoyances of the rear guard were reported.  That evening, lead elements of the Fourteenth Corps camped a few miles south of the state line.

Initially Twentieth Corps prepared to move on Cheraw that morning.  However, “but a few miles on the march before the order was countermanded from information that the place was occupied by our troops.” as Major-General Alpheus S. Williams recalled.  Instead the lead division of the corps moved only a few miles towards Sneedsborough, allowing the trailing divisions to close up from the Black Creek crossing.

“Catching up” was the theme of the day for the Fifteenth Corps also.  Marching on the Camden-Cheraw Road, the leading division reached Thompson’s Creek outside Cheraw, with the others halting between that point and Juniper Creek.  That morning, while completing the crossing of Black Creek, Major-General John Smith’s Third Division briefly skirmished with a party of 30 Confederate cavalry.  The Confederates captured  Lieutenant-Colonel James Isaminger, 63rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry, commanding the pioneer corps.  What made this incident of particular note was dress of the Confederates.  “It was supposed, until too late, that they were our own men, being dressed in complete suites of Federal uniform.”  Smith, himself, lead a party to recapture Isaminger, to no avail.

The Seventeenth Corps, however, was not “catching up” to anyone that day, save the rear guard of the Confederates evacuating Cheraw.  During the night, Lieutenant-General William Hardee withdrew all but a rear guard to the east side of the PeeDee.  Major-General Frank Blair pushed out for Cheraw early that morning.  After brushing aside a picket at Juniper Creek, the 9th Illinois Mounted Infantry was sent to the left to explore for crossing points upstream on Thompson’s Creek.  No practical crossing was found.  Instead, Blair would force a crossing on the Camden-Cheraw Road at Thomspon’s Creek, with Major-General Joseph Mower’s veteran division in the lead:

The enemy was first met in light force at an admirably selected position on the west side of Thompson’s Creek, where they had built a strong and extensive line of earthworks. Our skirmishers quickly drove them from this position and across Thompson’s Creek, saving the bridge, which they had already fired. In consequence of the abandonment of this strong line we were convinced that the main body of the army was retreating. We skirmished heavily, and drove them rapidly through Cheraw, using artillery upon them with effect, to and across the Pedee River, but were unable to save the bridge, it having been previously prepared for burning by covering it with resin, turpentine, &c., and was already in flames when our advance reached it.

Confederate troops under Major-General Matthew Butler and Colonel John Fiser did a good job of delaying the Federal advance.  But they were simply overwhelmed by the wave.  Lieutenant William Hyzer’s Battery C, 1st Michigan Light Artillery moved up with the Federal skirmishers and went into battery directly across from the bridge.  Though inflicting considerable casualties on the Confederate rear guard, Hyser was unable to prevent the firing of the bridge. The loss of the bridge incensed Mower considerably.  He would attempt to rally two different regiments into mounting a charge over the burning bridge before it collapsed.  Cooler subordinates advised the division commander to simply wait for the pontoons.  Still, the advance into Cheraw occurred with all the speed which Sherman had required.

In Cheraw, the Federals found the train depot on fire, but considerable stores and equipment intact.

Our captures at this point consisted of 25 pieces of field artillery, 16 limbers complete, 16 caissons complete, 5,000 rounds of artillery ammunition, 20,000 rounds of infantry ammunition, 2,000 stand small.arms, 1,000 sabers, and a large amount of material for the manufacture of fixed ammunition. Also an immense amount of tools belonging to the ordnance and machine shops; 1 locomotive, 12 to 15 cars, and thousands of bales of cotton, nearly all of which was destroyed before leaving the town.

That evening, Blair issued orders for “details to examine every house in the town and take therefrom all breadstuffs, rice, potatoes, meat, sugar, &c., except sufficient to last the families in the houses from which the stores are taken ten days.”  To reduce abuses and pillaging, Blair further directed that “a commissioned officer will accompany each detail, and he will be held responsible for the conduct of his men.”  Men were not allowed to enter houses “except in presence of the officers.” So while certainly foraging hard on the people of Cheraw, Blair was adamant about keeping the soldiers within the prescribed guidelines.

Among the cannons captured at Cheraw was one Blakely gun of note.  A plaque over the breech read something to the effect, “Presented to the Sovereign State of South Carolina by one of her citizens residing abroad, in commemoration of the 20th of December 1860.”  That particular rifle had been on Morris Island during the first bombardment of Fort Sumter.   So this was a prize worth showing off.  And that the Federals did to good effect, firing the gun across the PeeDee.

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(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 381 and 584; Part II, Serial 99, pages 661, 665, 667, and 670-1.)

The Execution of James Miller and an end of “Death to all Foragers”?

As I mentioned in closing for the post earlier today, the execution of James Miller stands as one of the prominent events in the march through South Carolina.  As I thumb through the many histories of the campaign at my disposal, the only ones which fail to mention the execution are those works which only cover the activities up to the burning of Columbia.  And doing a little historiography shuffle here, we find that most historians reference the account given in the 30th Illinois regimental history.  This makes good sense, as the 30th was the unit from which the dead forager, Private Robert M. Woodruff, came and was the unit detailed to carry out the execution.  Let me be lengthy here and quote that passage almost in its entirety (The whole of the regimental history is on line should you wish to browse):

They would kill our foragers and pin a piece of paper on their uniforms with this notice: “Death to all Foragers”. General Sherman issued an order which was sent to the Confederate commander that he would take life for life. It was not very long until a member of Co. “H” of our regiment by the name of Woodrough was found dead.

We had a lot of prisoners in the corrall and arrangements were made for them to cast lots to determine who should be taken. Slips of paper were put in a hat and a drawing was conducted by an officer appointed for that purpose. One slip of paper had a black mark on it, and the man drawing it was to be shot. The slips of paper were put in a hat and held up so the men could not see it.

A man by the name of Small drew the slip with the black mark on it. He drew two, and was told to drop one back. He kept the one that was his death warrant. A detail of twelve men was made from the dead man’s company to do the shooting. They were furnished guns loaded for the occasion, six with blank and six with ball. The man was given in charge of Chaplain Cole of the 31 regiment. He talked and prayed with the man, and brought him to the place of execution and asked him if he had anything to say. He said: “I was forced into the army, never was in a battle, never wished the Yankees any harm. I have a large family, all girls. I have been a local Methodist preacher”. His home was about 40 miles from there. There was much feeling for the man, and tears were shed. The firing squad had taken their places, and after the man made his talk the Chaplain blindfolded him and placed him against a tree where he was to be shot. The man requested that he be allowed to lean against the tree without being tied. The request was granted. Major Rhoads, ex Captain of Co. “H”, commanded firing squad, and cautioned the men to take good aim so the man would not suffer from a wound. At the command of “Fire!”, the guns all cracked at once. The man stiffened and quivered a little, and fell dead. Five balls struck the body and one in the thigh. Co. “A” of the 30th, commanded by Capt. Candor was detailed to take charge of the grounds and see that the execution was properly conducted. The man of Co. “H” that was killed, was not well thought of and many regrets were heard that a good man was killed for him, but that put a stop to the kiling (sic) of our foragers. Still bear in mind Sherman’s saying.

When Maj. Rhoads received the order to execute the man he refused to obey. Gen. Sherman told him he would obey the order or be courtmarshaled. Maj. Rhoads was a good man and a good officer, and this act bore on his mind as long as he lived. …The man was buried where he was killed, and board was put at the head of his grave, on which was written how he came to his death. Soldiers become hardened to seeing men killed, but a scene like the killing of this man will be on their minds as long as they live. This execution toop (sic) place near Cherew, S. C. ….

First things first, we must excuse the regimental historian, G. B. McDonald, for getting two principal names wrong – Robert M. Woodruff’s name appears in the Official Records from Maj0r-General Frank Blair’s orders.  And the executed soldier was Private James M. Miller, Company C, 5th (Brown’s) Battalion South Carolina Reserves.  But to confirm, we have this receipt from the 3rd Division, Seventeenth Corps’ provost, listing James Miller by name:

James Miller Page 7

I would also call out another particular mentioned by McDonald.  Lieutenant-Colonel William Rhoades, whom I’m pretty sure was at least breveted by this time, and not a Major, was not threatened with “courtmarshaled” by Major-General William T. Sherman.  Rather, Sherman was miles away at that time with Twentieth Corps near Chesterfield (Blair may have wished he’d been there that day, but another “what if” perhaps).  Perhaps it was Brigadier-General Manning Force, commanding Third Division at that time, who threatened Rhodes.

But, that is not to say we throw out the entire story due to three inaccurate points.  Miller was killed by the firing squad.  And enough men later wrote about how the episode shook them up, that I have no doubt of the emotional impact.

However, in our historiography we link the execution of Miller to the threats of reprisal exchanged between the cavalrymen starting on February 22 and leading up to threats of escalation between Sherman and Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton. But let us look at the details here.

First off, the death of Woodruff does not match the mode and manner of the earlier forager executions.  Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick alleged those men had their throats cut, bodies mutilated, or were shot in the back.  In the case of Woodruff, he was bludgeoned to death.

The location of Woodruff’s death was far away from the Texas cavalry units that Kilpatrick fingered in his allegations.  Blakeny’s Bridge was practically in the middle of the Federal concentration at that time.  Reports of the earlier forager executions had indicated those incidents occurred on the fringes of the Federal columns.  And recall that Blair had ordered only a day earlier that all foragers be constrained to the flanks of the column – as opposed to fore and rear.  Woodruff might have been where he shouldn’t have, if that made any difference.  But the location points to Woodruff’s killer being an irregular or person(s) detached from the formal Confederate forces.  ( I would not rule out a civilian defending property… but if the Federals who found Woodruff had suspected such, there would have been reprisals on suspected parties, or at least mention of such in reports to Blair.)

I think we should consider that in the context of the Woodruff-Miller incident.  There is, I’d argue, a separation from the earlier incidents.  If nothing else, we should recognize that Woodruff was probably not killed by the same hands as those who left “death to forager” notes.  After exchanging prisoners with Kilpatrick, Major-General Joseph Wheeler, and for that matter Hampton, seemed to let the matter drop.

Given the tone of Hampton’s last message to Sherman, one would think Miller’s death would prompt a recorded execution. But it didn’t.  Was that because Hampton cooled down?  I doubt it, as that was not the man’s nature.  Rather I think, if he was made fully aware of the incident, Hampton found it necessary to put Woodruff’s death in context – not willing to condone the death of that particular forager and possibly promote some lawless element in South Carolina.  But I’m speculating… and that’s not good.

The point remains, however, that Woodruff-Miller differed in particulars from the Kilpatrick-Wheeler affair over foragers and retaliation.  So to say that Miller’s execution somehow “chilled” the threats of retaliation is not well founded. Rather it seems the Kilpatrick-Wheeler prisoner exchange was the action that reduced pressures on that line.

Nor, for what it is worth, would the claim that Sherman gave verbal orders to restrain his foragers after Hampton’s threats.  Federal commanders had issued reminders in regard to foragers, and reformed their foraging policies almost from the start of marching out of Atlanta.  Sherman did, and would not have hesitated, issuing one more directive to clarify the practice.  On the other hand, one might well say that the “bummers” ceased pillaging so much as there was simply not much in that part of South Carolina to pillage.  From Camden to Chesterfield were some of the poorer districts of South Carolina (and the portion of North Carolina to which they passed over the next week was not that much richer).

At any rate, the short military career of James Miller came to a close on this day 150 years ago.  He’d enlisted on October 10, 1864 at Cheraw in Brown’s Battalion, which became the 5th Battalion South Carolina Reserves.  His unit was detailed to guard prisoners in Florence and picket various places west of Cheraw.  On February 28, 1865, Miller was captured by the Seventeenth Corps.  And as transcribed to his card, on March 2, 1865, he was “Sent to the 3rd Division by orders.”

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James Miller was simply a man who happened to be at the wrong place and was caught up in the greater atrocity that was the Civil War.

Sherman’s March, March 2, 1865: “To be shot to death in retaliation for the murder of Private R. M. Woodruff”

During the first days of March, 1865, Major-General William T. Sherman expressed some concern about Confederate concentrations in front of his force.  During the last days of February, Sherman’s columns were at a standstill as they dealt with flooded rivers. Orders to the Right Wing commander, Major-General Oliver O. Howard, during that time were to wait until the Left Wing, particularly the Fourteenth Corps, caught up.  But the situation changed with the flip of the calendar page.  Reports, which were accurate reports, had a Confederate force under Lieutenant-General William Hardee in Cheraw.  Writing to Howard on March 1, 1865, Sherman dismissed any serious threat from those forces, but necessary objectives:

The enemy cannot hold Cheraw against us, because it is on a branch road and we can insulate it.  [General Joseph E.] Johnston, if there, will not fight with a bridge behind him.  We may have to cross the Peedee with a serious enemy in front, but we must not allow the Confederates time to fortify Cheraw.

So for March 2, Sherman wanted his columns to push on to Cheraw and thence over the PeeDee.

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The Fourteenth Corps, which perpetually seemed to be behind on the march through South Carolina, continued to catch up on the 1st.  In the lead that day, Brigadier-General James Morgan’s Second Division reached Lynches River.  Morgan reported:

The roads to-day very heavy.  Long hard hills to pull up, but on the whole the roads were better than yesterday.  My command has made a first-rate march of twelve miles to-day.  Will cross the bridge with my command as soon as the road is completed and await further orders.

To this, Major-General Jefferson C. Davis replied that “no doubt you have made a good march t0-day, but would have preferred you had pushed on for or five miles beyond the bridge.”  Davis ordered Morgan to be on the road again at daylight.   Screening the left of the Fourteenth Corps, the Cavalry Division made a modest march of only a dozen miles.

To the front of the Left Wing, the Twentieth Corps pressed on to Chesterfield and had one of its few engagements of the South Carolina march.  The troops had to look sharp, as Sherman himself accompanied them on the march that day.  Major-General Alpheus S. Williams had Brigadier-General Nathaniel Jackson’s First Division on point.  As the column neared Chesterfield, scouts reported Confederate cavalry on the road ahead.  Jackson deployed skirmishers from the 5th Connecticut and 141st New York, part of Brigadier-General James Selfridge’s Brigade.  “We drove the enemy, after exchanging many shots, and captured the town of Chesterfield without the loss of a man,”  recalled Selfridge.

The infantry followed up the cavalry to bridges over Thompson Creek beyond. Selfridge’s men kept effective fire on the bridges and prevented any attempt to destroy them.  The Confederates countered with artillery fire from the opposite side of the creek.  Escalating the action, Major John A. Reynolds, Twentieth Corps artillery chief, brought up a section of Battery I, First New York Artillery and Battery C, 1st Ohio Artillery.  The New Yorkers fired thirteen rounds.  The Buckeye artillerists added twelve solid shot and eight spherical case.  A first rate artillery duel, with the Federals gaining the upper hand before nightfall.

On the 2nd, Howard was increasingly anxious to move the Fifteenth Corps forward on the right side of the march. Though unavoidable, problems with the bridges over the Lynches River the day before had greatly delayed Major-General John Logan’s advance.  With repairs made overnight, the last of the Fifteenth Corps crossed Tiller’s and Kelly’s Bridges.   Thus a river crossing which had started on February 25 was finally complete – the longest delay in Sherman’s movements since leaving Savannah.

Three Divisions of Fifteenth Corps managed to reach Black Creek that evening.  A pontoon over that creek allowed lead elements to occupy New Market.  While Logan directed that traffic, Howard directed Major-General John Corse to move Fourth Division, Fifteenth Corps forward to close the gap with Seventeenth Corps.  Receiving orders mid-morning, Corse broke camp at 1 p.m. and reported making six miles towards Cheraw that day.

Howard had Major-General Frank Blair’s Seventeenth Corps to hold position on the 2nd.  While not marching, Blair had two issues to deal with.  The first concerned the need to press forward and confusion between Sherman and Howard.  Late on March 1, Sherman addressed Blair directly:

The Twentieth Corps will be to-morrow night at or near Chesterfield. I want the Right Wing to move straight on Cheraw vigorously and secure if possible the bridge across PeeDee.  You need not suppose the enemy to be there in heavy force.  Big generals may be there but not a large force. At all events get across Thompson’s [Creek] on to-morrow and in Cheraw if possible. I will have men across the same stream about Chesterfield.  Communicate with me there to-morrow night.

Blair received this order around 10:00 a.m. on March 2.  But, “I was making preparation to move forward at once… when I received General Howard’s directions to wait,” Blair reported.  Not until late afternoon did Howard respond to clarify the orders.  “The general directs that in accordance with General Sherman’s instructions you move forward on Cheraw as early an hour as possible to-morrow morning.”  Not the time table that Sherman wanted, but the corps would move.

While waiting on the orders to be worked out, Blair dealt with another, more sensitive issue – that of retaliation for the execution of a forager.  Word came in the previous afternoon that a soldier from the 30th Illinois was found beaten to death.  The soldier was found at Blakeny’s Bridge, marked on the map above.  This was well to the rear of the Corps march, considering Blair’s instructions issued the previous day.  Satisfied from reports this was a murder of the manner described in Sherman’s message issued on February 23. Blair was thus compelled to issue, as the first paragraph for Special Orders No. 56, this response:

In accordance with instructions from the major-general commanding the army, directing that for each of our men murdered by the enemy a life of one of the prisoners in our hands should be taken, Mar. J.C. Marven, provost-marshal, Seventeenth Army Corps, will select from the prisoners in his charge one man and deliver him to Brig. Gen. M.F. Force, commanding Third Division, to be shot to death in retaliation for the murder of Private R. M. Woodruff, Company H, Thirtieth Illinois Volunteers, a regularly detailed forager, who was beaten to death by the enemy near Blakney’s Bridge on or about the 1st day of March, 1865.

The prisoners held by the Seventeenth Corps drew lots.  James Miller, a South Carolinian, drew the lot from among the prisoners held by the Seventeenth Corps.

Miller’s execution is one of the most mentioned incidents of Sherman’s march through South Carolina.  Second only to the burning of Columbia, perhaps.  As such, that warrants a separate post with a look at some of the details.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 610 ; Part II, Serial 99, pages 628, 649, 650-1.)